Bald eagles, the national symbol of the United States, are facing an unprecedented risk of death from highly infectious avian influenza. Researchers at the University of Georgia. have reported an “alarming rate” of nest failures and deaths due to the H5N1 avian influenza strain, which is killing an unprecedented number of mating pairs.
This is a serious threat to the species, and if not addressed, could have devastating effects for decades to come.
Research Shows Dramatic Losses
According to the study published in Nature’s Scientific Reports, just under half of the bald eagle nests in coastal Georgia fledged an eaglet in 2022, which is 30% below average for the season. The influenza was documented in Georgia’s bald eagles for the first time in April 2022 after dead eagles were found in Chatham, Glynn, and Liberty counties in March, UGA Today reports. The success rate for nests in one Florida County was 50% lower than average, dropping from an average of 86.5% to 41%.
Bald Eagles at Risk Across the Country
Reports of bald eagles dying across the United States and Canada have raised concerns among researchers. The University of Georgia’s Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study has diagnosed cases of the influenza in high numbers of bald eagles and other avian species from member states. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service also revealed that the influenza is widespread in bald eagles, and federal officials suspect that eagles and other raptors contract the virus by eating other diseased birds.
“Even just one year of losses of productivity like we’ve documented regionally is very concerning and could have effects for decades to come if representative of broader regions,” Nicole Nemeth, an associate professor at UGA’s college of veterinary medicine, who led the study with 10 other researchers, told USA TODAY. “There were nights where I couldn’t sleep based on what we were hearing and seeing.”
“We had reports from people who faithfully monitor eagle nests year after year with these heartbreaking stories of an adult eagle found dead below their nest, Nemeth said. “Within a few days, often its mate and the chicks were also found dead below the nest. It is clear the virus is causing nest failures.”
Bird Flu Affects Other Species Too
Since its first detection in the United States in January 2022, the H5N1 virus has infected more than 58 million domestic poultry animals, including chickens and turkeys, in 777 outbreaks, the CDC reports. The virus has also infected at least 146 avian species and has been documented in every state but Hawaii and every Canadian province and territory.
H5N1 has since spread to 17 other wildlife species in 22 states, including 60 red foxes, 16 harbor seals, and 14 striped skunks, reports the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Nearly half the infected red foxes were reported in Michigan and Wisconsin.
Nemeth said the number of wild bird cases could be “drastically underreported.”
Human Health Risks
While bird flu primarily strikes animals, it has been detected in four people in the United States, Field & Stream reports. Symptoms include eye redness, flu-like upper respiratory symptoms that range from mild to severe, fever, and body aches.
What Can You Do?
As individuals, we can take steps to reduce the risk of bird flu and protect the bald eagle population. Here are some actions you can take:
- Avoid handling sick or dead birds.
- Wash your hands thoroughly after handling birds or bird feeders.
- Do not feed birds in areas where bird flu has been detected.
- Report sick or dead birds to your local wildlife agency.
- Support organizations that work to conserve and protect the bald eagle population.
Join us in taking action to protect these magnificent birds. Sign our pledge to take these steps and help prevent the spread of bird flu. Together, we can make a difference and ensure the survival of the bald eagle for generations to come.
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